Modern Days: All Work & All Play
Being an occasional diary entry reporting something I’ve done or seen which may result in the inspiration to write.
I needed to get out.
It had not stopped raining – no, not raining, sifting – in London for a week. Sifting is what London in February does best, a blackening soaking mist of arrosage that anywhere else would be reserved for spraying on bougainvillea after sunset. In London we’re getting it all day, every day, from a cloudbase so dense that it doesn’t actually grow light. This is the penalty for living in a Northern country, a punishment for being industrious. Step outside and you return feeling like you were just fished out of the canal.
Thursday. I was prowling in the flat, on a deadline and unable to think clearly, so I went to Barcelona to clear my brain and start afresh. Catholic countries start late. You don’t feel guilty about eating breakfast at ten. You may also still be working at 2:00AM.
I decide to buy some fish. I’ll have some steamed hake and write quietly through the day until midnight. The first sign of trouble appears when I notice that the fish-lady and her staff are dressed as penguins.
Oh, and one is a sort of viking. Okay, I think, it’s a promotion. When you work in London, if anyone does something odd you assume they’re selling something. But on the way back I pass a family having coffee.
Now I’m thinking okay, the circus is in town. The Circus Of Horrors usually camps near the port every winter. I head home to start writing. It’s quiet in BCN, a big city with just an eighth of the population of London. I open my laptop when I hear hooves on cobbles and go to the window. Horses are passing in pairs, a great many, pulling Victorian traps which hold – Victorians.
The odd noises increase so I seal the windows and return to write until it’s dusk. But I need green peppers for dinner, so I go out and bump into a family of skittles and a bowling ball. I look around and realise that every little girl in the entire city is dressed as a princess. What is it with the princess outfits? Did Germaine Greer waste her entire life complaining about gender-typing in vain? Then the drumming starts. In Southern climes, you’re never far from a drum.
Call me slow. I used to have trouble following ‘Columbo’, so how I became a crime writer is a mystery to me. I think to myself, ‘This is weird, it’s not like it’s Rio or anything…’ And the penny drops. Carnem Levare. Carnival. Mardi Gras. I’ve been to New Orleans at Mardi Gras a few times but I didn’t expect it in cash-strapped Spain. Apart from anything else, I don’t see how there’s room in the Catholic calendar for any more dressing up and setting fire to things.
But carnival it is, of course. Outside the vegetable store a troupe of acrobats is yelling and throwing each other upside down. I walk around the corner into my silent, empty square to find everyone dancing…
If you want a happy life, live in a country that doesn’t want to be a world power. Everything stops at the slightest provocation for pleasure. The lady in the bread shop may decide not to serve anyone because she’s busy dressing as a giant rabbit. Your favourite cafe doesn’t open because the sun is out, it’s a Tuesday or they just. Don’t. Feel. Like. It.
Part of me thinks, ‘How is anything achieved? How does anyone get successful?’ The other part thinks, ‘What’s the point in being driven to succeed if you miss your life passing?’ It isn’t doing much for the Germans – they work like dogs and end up supporting Greece. It’s not doing much for the happiness of workaholic Londoners either. Toronto is regularly cited as one of the happiest places on earth, but you never hear anything about Canada in the press unless it’s Justin Bieber.
That’s the answer. Spend some time in a place that isn’t in the news. There’s an old maxim – When your life exceeds your dreams, keep your mouth shut’ – you don’t hear a peep out of New Zealand, do you?
Something else puzzles me. There was no warning that this would happen, no big announcement. No Health & Safety barriers, no monetising of the event, just celebration. It’s the way everything is treated here; births, deaths, fiestas just happen because this is what life is expected to provide. Then I think that maybe the UK is the odd one for over-analyzing every last element of life, so that everything must be forecast, predicted, studied and provided with a post-mortem in which it is forensically mapped, parsed, compared and rated. Is this a national symptom, the inability to live without comment? Am I doing it now, sharing the thought?
When you work very hard, your personal time becomes overly precious and must be perfect. One of the worst examples I can think of is the Wedding Fair, designed not to deliver your perfect day but a more perfect day than anyone else’s.
Picking pits of orange ticker-tape out of my hair, I head home. There are people who think life is but a dream, and people who don’t but really should. People in London and Frankfurt might want to pay special attention to that. We’ll find ourselves giving up accountancy for tightrope walking before we know it.